Tag Archives: Vietnam War

Knowing the Enemy: Naval Intelligence in Southeast Asia

Richard A. Mobley and Edward J. Marolda, Knowing the Enemy: Naval Intelligence in Southeast AsiaNaval History and Heritage Command, 2016, 102 pp.

By LCDR Mark Munson, USN

Knowing the Enemy: Naval Intelligence in Asia by Richard A. Mobley and Edward J. Marolda is the seventh book in the Naval History and Heritage Command’s The U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War series, and addresses the role of U.S. Navy intelligence in the Vietnam War. It serves as useful reference for both students of the Vietnam War and Navy intelligence, illuminating both the drastic technological changes that have taken place over the last 50 years, as well as the unchanging nature of core intelligence principles. Determining what information commanders need, and figuring out how to get them that finished intelligence at the right time and in the right format remains the essence of how to do intelligence right.

Many of the ways in which the U.S. Navy conducted intelligence operations during Vietnam would be familiar to practitioners today, with the Integrated Operational Intelligence Center (IOIC) onboard a Vietnam-era carrier the direct ancestor of today’s Carrier Intelligence Center (CVIC), spaces in which intelligence from a variety of sources, including data from national, theater, and carrier air wing (CVW) sensors and feeds are fused to provide what the Navy calls “Operational Intelligence.”

Demonstrating the continuity of all-source intelligence analysis between then and now, the all-source techniques Vietnam-era analysts used to track illicit civilian shipping had originally been perfected during the Second World War. During Operation Market Time, the U.S. Navy’s interdiction campaign in the South China Sea against trawlers smuggling weapons from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, naval intelligence used what Mobley and Marolda describe as a “sophisticated analytical and interpretive process” and techniques like “pattern analysis,” to achieve “a comprehensive understanding of what routes the infiltrating ships would take and what sites on the coast of South Vietnam they would attempt to reach.”

During Vietnam the Navy experimented both with methods where imagery collected during airborne reconnaissance missions was exploited onboard the carrier in the IOIC, as well as what is now called “reachback,” with analysts at the Fleet Intelligence Center Pacific Facility (FICPAC) in Hawaii exploiting imagery during Operation Rolling Thunder early in the war, or at the Fleet Intelligence Center Pacific Facility (FICPACFAC) at Cubi Point in the Philippines later during the bombing of North Vietnam during 1972’s Operation Linebacker. Teams of FICPACFAC imagery analysts “operated around the clock processing raw intelligence photography, interpreting it, and using it to prepare targeting lists” during Linebacker. Navy support to targeting efforts during Linebacker played a vital role to operations such as the air campaign that stopped North Vietnam’s conventional invasion of the South, and the mining of Haiphong Harbor.

Unlike today, however, when reachback is enabled by robust wireless and satellite communications, the state of technology at that time meant that unexploited imagery had to be physically couriered from the various sites afloat and ashore in Southeast Asia to Hawaii and back, demonstrating the old intelligence truism that even the best intelligence collection has no impact if cannot get to an analyst who can exploit and then disseminate it to the right decision-maker in a timely and usable form. This dilemma was demonstrated most acutely during Rolling Thunder, which featured rules-of-engagement requiring the Joint Staff at the Pentagon to approve strikes, meaning that wet film of targets like Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) sites would have to be flown back to the carrier, recovered from the plane, exploited by imagery analysts, transmitted to Washington, and then approved as targets. This lumbering process often allowed the enemy to move their SAM batteries well before an attack was mounted. In this instance the combination of technological limitations and cumbersome command-and-control processes limited the effectiveness of U.S. airpower. It also serves as a reminder for how the current reliance on wireless communications presents vulnerabilities that can be exploited by savvy adversaries that challenge U.S. use of the electromagnetic spectrum by degrading dissemination of intelligence from the analyst to the consumer.

The employment of manned airborne reconnaissance platforms from even before the start of the war demonstrates the desire for better intelligence by both commanders in theater and national leaders during Vietnam, with carrier-based aircraft conducting what is now called Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions being suffering casualties over Laos as early as June 1964. 32 planes from the Navy’s photo-reconnaissance squadrons were eventually shot down during war, with seven pilots killed and five captured. These comparatively heavy losses are possibly the biggest human difference between ISR in Vietnam and the current set of wars prosecuted by the U.S. in the twenty-first century. The extreme risks that North Vietnam’s advanced Soviet air defense network posed to aviators flying manned reconnaissance platforms then contrasts greatly with the virtually threat-free environment that today’s aerial reconnaissance platforms enjoy as they operate with impunity in the skies above places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Just like today, signals intelligence (SIGINT) can be collected both in the air and afloat, with support during Vietnam from Naval Security Group cryptologists embarked in Navy ships off the coast, and airborne SIGINT collection conducted from P-3 Orion Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft during Operation Market Time.

Navy collectors of Human Intelligence (HUMINT) in Vietnam included Naval Intelligence Liaison Officers (NILO) serving as part of Naval Intelligence Field Organization (NIFO) in Vietnam’s coastal and riverine zones. Perhaps the most impressive HUMINT success took place in 1969 when Navy collection was able to prove that North Vietnam was moving weapons and personnel into the South via Cambodia. This was a victory against both the enemy as well as the national intelligence bureaucracy. Previous technical collection had failed to prove the existence of a Cambodian transshipment node, and strongly-held assessments by CIA, DIA, and the State Department had rejected suspicions that support to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong was being funneled through Cambodia.

Perhaps some of the most insightful observations made in Knowing the Enemy is when it recounts how the desire for better intelligence on the intentions of the North Vietnamese, Chinese, and Soviet rivals of the U.S. ended up driving both military operations and political events, instead of the reverse. Although the U.S. had been involved in the fight in Southeast Asia since the French had been forced out of its former Indochinese colony in the mid-1950s, the main trigger for the “official” start of the war was actually caused by the push for more aggressive intelligence collection.

By the early sixties, U.S. Navy destroyers were regularly conducting intelligence collection missions called “DESOTO patrols,” typically off the coast but outside the territorial waters of the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and North Vietnam. By 1964 U.S. leaders were pushing for more aggressive DESOTO patrols in order to support South Vietnam’s “Operation 34A” commando raids against North Vietnamese coastal targets. Admiral Harry D. Felt, then serving as Commander in Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), stated that the “lack of adequate intelligence is a prime factor in the failure of maritime operations,” concluding that Operation 34A needed better U.S. Navy afloat collection to be successful.

The pressure to improve collection by operating U.S. Navy ships closer to the North Vietnamese coast, sometime inside of territorial waters, led directly to the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident in which the destroyers Maddox (DD-731) and Turner Joy (DD-951), were purportedly attacked by the North Vietnamese Navy, providing the justification for the subsequent Tonkin Gulf Resolution and the closest thing to an actual “start” of the Vietnam War. The authors briefly discuss the controversy over exactly what happened in August 1964, and how intelligence reporting and analysis of those events at the time were used by the Johnson administration to justify a greatly expanded role in Vietnam, noting that “it is now clear that North Vietnamese naval units did not attack Maddox and Turner Joy on 4 August 1964.”

Knowing the Enemy highlights heroes such as Jack Graf, a decorated NILO who, after being shot down during his second tour in Vietnam, escaped from captivity but ultimately went missing; Lieutenant Charles F. Klusmann, a reconnaissance pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1964 but was able to escape; and Captain Earl F. “Rex” Rectanus, the Intelligence Officer for Naval Forces Vietnam (NAVFORV) who stood up to CIA and DIA in 1969, proving that enemy forces were being resupplied via Cambodia. It also includes sections discussing more prosaic challenges like those faced by cryptologists located ashore at bases like Danang who underwent frequent rocket attacks from Viet Cong rebels.

Knowing the Enemy provides a rich resource for those interested in U.S. Naval intelligence efforts in Vietnam, covering the war both chronologically and thematically in terms of how intelligence supported Navy operations off the coast, in the air, on the ground, and in the rivers of southeast Asia. It can be downloaded for free from the Naval History and Heritage Command’ website.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a naval officer assigned to Coastal Riverine Group TWO. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Ben Cat, South Vietnam, Sept. 25, 1965 by french photographer Henry Huet. The soldiers in the photo are paratroopers of the U.S. 2nd Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade. (Colorized by Wayne Degan)

President McCormack and the Vietnam War

Alternate History Topic Week

By Ben Lamont

President John W. McCormack assumed office on November 23, 1963, less than twenty-four hours after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, following the accidental killing of Lyndon B. Johnson by a Secret Service agent. Born into a Boston family of Irish immigrants and a lawyer by training, McCormack served in the U.S. Army during the final years of World War One and began his long political career shortly after returning. He was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1928.

McCormack was a staunch democrat and supporter of the New Deal. In the lead up to World War Two, he rose to prominence as chair of the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, which sought  to unmask U.S. citizens with Nazi or communist ties. McCormack also played a key role in the passage, in the face of isolationist resistance, of the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which initiated the first peacetime conscription in U.S. history.

Speaker of the House John W. McCormack (D-Massachusettes) (standing), addresses those attending a luncheon at the US Capitol honoring top Department of Defense executives. Left to right are Congressman George H. Mahon (D-Texas), committee chairman of the US House of Representatives Appropriations Committee; General (GEN) Earle G. Wheeler, Chairman, US Army Joint Chiefs of Staff; Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Congressman McCormack.
Speaker of the House John W. McCormack (D-Massachusettes) (standing), addresses those attending a luncheon at the US Capitol honoring top Department of Defense executives. Left to right are Congressman George H. Mahon (D-Texas), committee chairman of the US House of Representatives Appropriations Committee; General (GEN) Earle G. Wheeler, Chairman, US Army Joint Chiefs of Staff; Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Congressman McCormack.

Despite having served in the House of Representatives since 1928, McCormack came into the Oval Office with relatively little foreign policy expertise. As a result, McCormack was initially deferential to the stable of charismatic foreign policy advisors he inherited from President Kennedy: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense William McNamara, CIA Director John McCone, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor.

While managing the ongoing strategic competition with the Soviet Union always loomed, during his time in office McCormack’s foreign policy agenda was dominated by the war in Vietnam, which was at a crossroads when he arrived. Based on the advice of Bundy and others, McCormack authorized the deployment of hundreds more U.S. military advisers during the first few months of his presidency.

In the midst of the 1964 election cycle (McCormack won the Democratic primary virtually unopposed), the Gulf of Tonkin incident made Vietnam an election issue. McCormack sought and won the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in part to project an image of strength in the face of accusations by his rival in the general election, Barry Goldwater, that he wasn’t doing enough to roll back communist expansion. The resolution granted McCormack greater authority over how to use U.S. military force, which he used to deepen U.S. engagement in Vietnam over the following year. McCormack won the 1964 presidential election against Goldwater easily.

Over the next two years however, McCormack grew increasingly uncomfortable with U.S. involvement in Vietnam. A veteran and staunch Catholic, McCormack wrote to the widows and families of hundreds of service members who were killed in Vietnam over the course of his presidency. These interactions had a profound effect on McCormack, and his willingness to commit U.S. soldiers to the conflict began to erode in the winter of 1965-66, as U.S. casualties mounted.

U.S. troop levels in Vietnam reached a peak of 200,000 in the summer of 1966, which McCormack reduced to 40,000 by the spring of 1967. In his public speeches, McCormack cited his concern for veterans and his faith as the reasons behind his decision to disengage from Vietnam. McCormack was particularly affected by the activist Julia Moore, who brought attention how after the Battle of Ia Drang, widows were notified of their husbands’ deaths via telegrams delivered by cab drivers.

In late January 1968, around the time of the Tet holiday, North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces launched major attacks against the weakened U.S. positions that remained in Vietnam. Around three thousand Marines stationed at Khe Sanh Combat Base, close to the DMZ with North Vietnam, came under siege and had to be airlifted out under intense enemy fire. U.S. and South Vietnamese Army forces fell back to the perimeter of the Capital Military District around Saigon.

Although the U.S. government sought to portray the agreements between the United States and North Vietnam that McCormack oversaw as ceasefires, they were widely viewed as articles of surrender, and allowed U.S. forces to retreat from South Vietnam relatively peacefully in the latter half of 1968.

McCormack took massive criticism for his decisions from foreign policy hawks who believed that he had capitulated to the Soviet Union and communism. During the 1968 presidential race, McCormack’s opponent Richard Nixon hammered McCormack on the issue of Vietnam. While Nixon publicly championed the idea of “peace with honor”, The New York Times reported that Nixon called McCormack a “traitor” in a private speech to Republican donors a few months before the election.

After winning the 1968 election, President Nixon appointed a special task force to investigate the reasons behind America’s defeat in Vietnam, which became known as the Gates Commission after its chairman, former Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates. The Gates Commission was highly critical of President McCormack’s decision-making during the war and recommended that the responsibility of commander-in-chief should be shared by the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rather than be the sole prerogative of the president. However the recommendations never materialized because of concerns about their constitutional legality.

After leaving the White House, McCormack became a fellow at Boston College, where he wrote a memoir of his long career entitled “Leadership in Turmoil”. He died in 1975.

Ben Lamont works in the Asia program at The German Marshall Fund of the United States.